In the bustling Ueno neighborhood of central Tokyo, the streets smell of cumin lamb skewers, shish kebab, and kofte. A storefront advertises financial services in more than 20 languages, and the shops sell Korean novelty snacks, Taiwanese bubble tea, and Punjabi curries. At a nearby kissaten, a traditional Japanese diner, a group of young Senegalese men chat in Wolof.
Scenes like these may be familiar in New York or Hong Kong, but they are far less common in Tokyo, a city that is not traditionally known for its cosmopolitan diversity.
That’s beginning to change. While Ueno has been relatively multicultural compared to the rest of Tokyo since the 1980s, the entire capital is becoming increasingly diverse. In the coming decades, similar neighborhoods will mushroom across Japan as the nation pushes ahead with radical immigration reforms. But even as immigration grows in this traditionally homogenous country, Japan appears to be avoiding the organized far-right backlash that has coursed through the West in recent years.
In Europe and the United States, immigration and national identity seemingly consume all politics; in Japan, despite its reputation as closed-off, homogenous, and xenophobic, a large increase in immigration has mostly been met with a shrug. While anti-immigrant sentiments are widespread, they do not run very deep, or so suggests the lack of substantial opposition.
Today, nearly 3 million migrants live in Japan out of a population of 126 million. That number is triple the figure in 1990. And as Japan struggles with a rapidly aging population and shrinking domestic workforce, it’s looking to increase that number further. In April 2019, Tokyo implemented historic immigration reform, expanding visa programs to allow more than 345,000 new workers to immigrate to Japan over the subsequent five years. Low-skilled workers will be able to reside in Japan for five years, while foreign workers with specialized skills will be allowed to stay indefinitely, along with their family members—suggesting that many of these workers might stay for good.
Immigration to Japan and the number of foreign workers in the country have been rising steadily since 2013, when the government expanded a trainee programs to attract hundreds of thousands of temporary migrants. In 2017, Japan streamlined the immigration of skilled foreign workers with a new fast-track bill. According to Naohiro Yashiro, a business professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, foreign workers are estimated to make up 40 percent of the net increase among the highly skilled labor force in Japan in the coming five years.
This growth in immigration, in turn, is changing the image of Japan from ethnically homogenous to moderately diverse. Among Tokyo residents in their 20s, 1 in 10 is now foreign-born. And Tokyo is no longer an outlier. Much of the migration is happening in small industrial towns around the country, such as Shimukappu in central Hokkaido and Oizumi in Gunma prefecture, where migrant populations make up more than 15 percent of the local population. In the mostly rural Mie prefecture, east of Osaka and Kyoto, foreign migration has reversed years of population loss.
Despite this expansion, however, Japan has not seen anything like the populist backlash in Europe or the United States, where political polarization is increasingly driven by differing opinions on immigration and national identity. In fact, the latest immigration reform has faced little scrutiny by the media or in wider conversation. “In general, there has not been much controversy regarding the law,” Yashiro said.
Much of that can be traced to the clear government messaging behind the reforms—and the messenger. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has based his support for the changing immigration policy not on any humanitarian concerns but rather on pragmatic, demographic arguments. By 2050, the world population is expected to increase by 2 billion people, according to the United Nations, but Japan’s population is expected to shrink by at least 20 million. Meanwhile, the fertility rate in Japan has fallen to 1.4 children per woman, while 28 percent of the country is over 65 years old. This means that the country’s population has been dropping by around 400,000 people a year.
With unemployment consistently below 3 percent in recent years, even after the pandemic, employers are increasingly raising alarms about labor shortages. Last year, for the first time in Japan’s history, there were more jobs available than the number of job seekers in all of Japan’s 47 prefectures. In a country long known for its restrictive borders, immigration is now seen as the most obvious solution to that demographic challenge.
Rather than simply relaxing immigration restrictions overall, however, Japan has developed a unique program of customized immigration, based on specific requests for workers from various countries. It is a kind of a la carte globalization, where Japan custom-orders a labor force in the 14 sectors where they are most urgently needed, including nurses and care workers, shipbuilders, farm workers, car mechanics, and workers in the fishing and construction industries.
“It’s important to understand that Abe’s government introduced these reforms not to change Japanese society, but to sustain Japanese society,” said Eiji Oguma, a sociologist and historian at Keio University in Tokyo, who has spent most of his professional life researching and writing about immigration and Japanese identity.
But given that latest bill allows an easier pathway for skilled foreign workers to apply for permanent residency and, eventually, Japanese citizenship—it may do more than simply sustain society.
“More workers will try to stay here permanently,” Oguma said. “So even if the bill is not meant to change Japan, it certainly has the potential to change Japanese society in the long term.”
Whenever Japan’s immigration policy is discussed, descriptions of Japan’s long history as an isolated country closed off from the world soon follow. Historians of Japanese politics have argued that the restrictive immigration policy and strict border controls have been shaped as much by postwar occupation as by a historical resentment toward foreigners.
The postwar U.S. occupation regime applied Cold War logic that required firm borders with Korea and China. In Borderline Japan: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era, the historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki argues that “the framework of laws and institutions which restricts immigration to Japan today was actually created during the postwar Allied occupation of Japan.” During the decades following the war, a new image of Japan emerged as “a self-contained, unique and ethnically ‘pure’ nation,” she writes.
Japan ranks moderately high on global indexes of acceptance and tolerance of immigrants. Nationalist and xenophobic far-right voices protesting the new law have failed to gain momentum. In fact, most of Japanese society supports the changing immigration policy. In a recent survey by Nikkei, almost 70 percent of Japanese said it is “good” to see more foreigners in the country. “The nationalist, anti-immigrant groups here only make up perhaps 1-2 percent of voters. It’s not like Europe. And they have not raised their voices about this so far,” Oguma said.
It helps that the immigration reform was passed by Abe and his conservative government. Abe has avoided describing the bill as an “immigration policy,” opting instead to market it as a pragmatic response to the demands of local business leaders.
A significant factor in the new immigration policy is the bilateral agreements Japan has drafted with countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, which will allow them to send tens of thousands of care workers to Japan annually. Both countries see this as a win-win proposition. Japan gets much-needed labor, the Philippines gets an increase in foreign remittances, and many workers will eventually return, having learned new valuable skills.
The strongest support for the bill came from the most conservative wing of parliament, and opposition has largely come from Abe’s left, over concerns about a lack of regulation on employers, which they fear could lead to exploitation. Many foreign workers are already forced to work overtime, receive less pay, and risk having their passports and travel documents confiscated by employers. Maids and care workers from the Philippines regularly report being treated terribly by clients who spit on them, beat them, and use racist slurs. And the activist group Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan observes that some factories in the mostly rural Gifu prefecture have implemented segregated bathrooms and locker rooms for domestic and foreign workers.
Foreign workers have been treated badly in Japan for decades. According to a recent Japan Times analysis of government data, the participants in Japan’s controversial trainee program are more than twice as likely to die from work-related causes as their Japanese counterparts. Last year, Abe’s government promised the implementation of 100 consultation centers nationwide to deal with issues of workplace abuse for migrant workers and trainees.
Some of these issues were anticipated when the new immigration law passed in December 2018. The concerns raised in parliament were mostly about social inclusion and labor rights.
“How do we prepare for their living? How do we protect their rights as workers? What about their social welfare? What about their housing? What about their Japanese-language education? None of these have been dealt with,” wrote Akira Nagatsuma, of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, in an op-ed.
This dynamic was common in the immigration debate in Europe and the United States in the 1980s and ’90s, when pro-business conservatives often pushed for more immigrants and guest workers, while labor unions raised concerns for workers’ rights and downward pressure on wages.
Last year, I visited the home of a Japanese TV personality, his American wife, and their Filipina maid, Maria, in Tokyo’s prosperous Meguro neighborhood. Maria, who asked not to share her last name, has worked for the family for the past decade, and she lives an hour away in Kanagawa. In recent years, a small enclave of Filipino migrants have settled there, with many more to come, Maria predicts. The new immigration bill will be a game-changer for the Filipino community in Tokyo, she said.
“I have four relatives who plan to move here now, to work, after they passed the new migration bill. My niece is a registered nurse back home, but she’s been unemployed for years, so she’s also moving here this summer,” Maria said. “Many people in the Philippines are very excited, because they know they can make so much more money here now.”
Over the past year, Japanese newspapers have run mostly upbeat stories on the hundreds of nurses and care workers arriving to Japan from the Philippines. Maria got her permanent residency two years ago and plans to stay here for good. The legal process was long and expensive, with the family that employs her paying most of the legal fees. With the new bill, the permanent residency application process is expected to be smoother.
Maria lives with her husband, a maintenance worker at an international school, and their daughter, who works at a ramen factory. “I think I’m beginning to feel that I belong here,” she said. “I have been here for so long. People are generally nice. I experience bullying occasionally, but it’s mostly older people. Never the young ones.”
The widespread xenophobia in Japan is hardly a myth. In 2010, the U.N.’s human rights experts called out Japan for racism, discrimination, and exploitation of migrant workers. Increased immigration has not changed the country’s notoriously strict asylum policies. In 2018, only 42 asylum-seekers were approved, out of around 10,000 applicants.
Most foreigners here can share plenty of anecdotes of casual racism. Baye McNeil, an African American man who has lived in Tokyo for two decades, said he experiences racism pretty much every day, “but it’s still not as bad as in America.”
A few years ago, McNeil wrote a viral blog post on what he called the “gaijin seat.” “Gaijin” means “foreigner” in Japanese, and McNeil wrote that whenever he sits down on the subway and there’s an open seat next to him, locals refuse to sit there.
“Usually, I hear people say in Japanese that it’s too scary to sit next to a Black guy,” McNeil said.
Still, he said he prefers the casual xenophobia of Japan to the structural racism of America.
“The racism here is more like being hit in a pillow fight.”
The countless examples of workplace abuse and harassment point to a larger problem of social inclusion. Sooner or later, Japan may face nationwide debate on what it means to be Japanese in the 21st century. Few countries undergoing demographic shifts are able to avoid these challenges.
Neighboring nations leave room for pessimism. When South Korea accepted 500 Yemeni refugees in 2018, it created storms of protests, with street rallies demanding that the Yemenis be sent back, calling them “fake refugees.”
The worldwide protests in support of the United States’ anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement have gained traction in Japan. In early June, thousands of people participated in Black Lives Matter protests in Tokyo, which has contributed to a nationwide debate on harassment of migrants and foreigners—as well as race. But the issue is far from resolved: When the Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is biracial, tweeted her support for the protests, she was met with a deluge of online harassment.
The business professor Yashiro said he expects a lot of “social friction” in Japan in coming years, as hundreds of thousands of new migrants arrive to a country not used to diversity. But Oguma and other experts say Japan is unlikely to see a nationalist backlash, let alone organized political insurgency.
If a xenophobic backlash eventually emerges, what will it look like? Most experts say that it’s unlikely to take an organized political form. “Xenophobic nationalists are generally irrelevant in politics. If there is a backlash, it will most likely begin as a local uprising against Tokyo, a populist revolt against the central government, just as in the EU,” Oguma said. “But I don’t see it happening right now. The far-right here is too atomized, each faction want different things. So I don’t really worry about an organized uprising.”
It is hard to speculate on the political aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. With massive stimulus spending and a robust, universal health care system, Japan has weathered the pandemic fairly well. Unemployment in April was 2.5 percent.
While there has been some anecdotal evidence of increased racist harassment of foreign workers, coupled with an emerging skepticism toward globalization and migration, Japan at the moment is one of the few countries where resentment against immigrants is not the defining feature of politics.
Despite its reputation as isolated and xenophobic, Japan has become an outlier in global politics, showing that increased immigration is possible without a mass backlash.
Research for this article was funded in part by the Sweden-Japan Foundation.